Environmental Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic


photo courtesy of Parker Briggs

Air quality in urban areas has improved worldwide as a result of lockdown policies enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker Briggs, Reporter

Carbon emission measurements are showing that there can be a bright side even to something as serious as the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown policies have kept nearly 3 billion people at home for work and school, significantly reducing pollution resulting from commuting traffic and industrial activity.

Atmospheric carbon and nitrogen dioxide levels in China, the world’s largest producer of air pollution, were recently measured to be 25% lower than they were in March of last year, while pollution levels in Northern Italy have declined upwards of 40%. This is good news for global warming, but the effects are expected to last only as long as the lockdowns.

The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization focused on energy security and related environmental protection, has predicted an increase in global methane emissions, also due to lockdown policies. Oil companies experiencing revenue drops resulting from decreased gasoline sales are less likely to attend to leaky gas pipes, and may possibly increase flaring of unwanted gas. 

Methane in the atmosphere is difficult to accurately measure, but its effects can be devastating: it is 80 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As governments have their hands full fighting the spread of the pandemic, they will likely be unable to crack down on methane emissions.

Air quality is not the only environmental effect of stay-at-home policies. Empty city streets provide an inviting new territory for wildlife, with silk deer taking over a subway station in Nara, Japan, and a puma being spotted in downtown Santiago, Chile.

Shoppers forced to stay home have increasingly turned to online shopping to meet their needs, meaning an increase in consumption of packaging materials as goods are delivered by mail. And as the use of disposable plastic gloves and masks has become mainstream for the public, the resulting litter has become a common sight along city streets. 

The quantity of masks and gloves used for medical purposes during the pandemic is likely to be no less substantial. A single doctor testing just 50 patients per day for COVID-19, changing gloves each visit, will in one month have disposed of nearly 3,000 individual gloves. Between these various sources of pollution, the pandemic is likely to leave an almost unfathomable amount of plastics in the environment.